Jane is having an affair with ‘‘Martin,’’ whom Jane has known most of her adult life. I know about the affair because Jane confided in me years ago. In fact, this affair was also a part of Jane’s previous marriage, and Jane confided this to me as part of her divorce from her first husband, whom I did not know. Jane thinks Martin is her true life’s ‘‘soul mate,’’ and I think she may be right. Peter does not know about the affair. If he knew about it, I think he would divorce Jane in a minute.
Jane and Martin likely will never be together. Martin is married with children, and he lives in another country, and neither Jane nor Martin can change countries — it would end either person’s professional career. Martin visits the United States once or twice a year on business, and during those visits Jane and Martin spend a weekend together, usually in a hotel. Jane lies to Peter when this happens; she tells him she’s away on a business trip.
I don’t judge people’s sexual lives, and I’m very liberal philosophically. I’m less comfortable with adultery, because it involves lying, but usually I don’t feel the need even to have opinions about other people’s affairs. Recently, I found myself lying to Peter about Jane’s affair. Just casually at dinner with the two of them, the subject of Jane’s ‘‘business trip’’ came up, and I was unexpectedly faced with either chiming in with Jane about her trip or blurting out about the affair or awkwardly excusing myself. Jane said something like, ‘‘Did you get the pictures I texted of the Golden Gate Bridge?’’ and I knew she had not been in San Francisco. ‘‘Yes, they were great,’’ I said.
What should I do? If I continue to be friends with Jane and Peter, I end up in some small way lying to Peter, who is also a friend. But I am not going to tell Peter about the affair — that’s not my role. If I distance myself from them, I feel like I’m just taking the ethical path that ‘‘keeps my hands clean’’ but doesn’t do anything positive. What use is that?
And probably the strangest thing is, deep inside, I think the affair may be good for everyone. Jane and Peter have a good marriage, and Jane needs this outlet with Martin. Maybe just allowing the lie to roll forward in perpetuity is the best thing.
But I sometimes conjure the following: Peter finds out after many years, his marriage is destroyed, he is deeply hurt and he says to me: “You knew about this the whole time? You helped her lie to me about this for years?” I don’t know what I would say. Name Withheld
You can read the columnist’s reply here. I completely agree with his well-thought-out answer, and would only add that the LW downgrade his friendship with Peter from “bro bonding” to more of an acquaintanceship sans any bonding. I think remaining friendly to, but not necessarily with, Peter (and there IS a difference), will go a long way in easing the LW’s internal conflict. He’s friends with Jane. His loyalty is with her. As long as his behavior reflects that, he can feel better about withholding information from Peter that would likely hurt Jane very much and probably irrevocably damage his friendship with her.
What do you think? What would you do if you were in the LW’s shoes or what would you advise him to do?
[Illustration by Tomi Um for The New York Times]